Obituary: David Shahar

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The Independent Online
David Shahar's background was very different from the majority of Israeli writers and intellectuals of his generation, most of whom were secular new immigrants mainly from Europe. Shahar was born in Jerusalem of a pious ultra-orthodox Jewish family which had been settled in the city for five generations. After an orthodox education he studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His early life was lived against the backdrop of the tumultuous events of the British Mandate over Palestine: Arab riots against Jewish immigration, the Second World War and the subsequent struggle on the part of the Jewish community (the Yishuv) to get rid of the British.

Involved first with the right-wing Etzel group (the Irgun Tzvai Leumi) and then with the aggressively secular Canaanite movement - which sought to renounce all attachment to Jewish history in an identification with a physical land of Canaan emptied of any Jewish content - Shahar was doubly on the margins of Israeli literary life: native-born and originally orthodox in a predominantly secular immigrant society and a right-wing ultra-nationalist in a literary monde which was predominantly socialist.

As a child of the Mandate it is the tensions of the fractured society of the time and particularly the atmosphere of Mandate Jerusalem that Shahar more than any other writer has managed to convey and preserve in his works. And because of a certain ideological detachment he succeeded in eschewing the conventional solutions of Israeli post-war writing which usually identified the protagonist with the aspirations of Labour Zionism.

Shahar's works are on the contrary full of a remarkable parade of characters drawn from his childhood memories of Jerusalem - a cosmopolitan undivided city in which almost all the languages of the world could be heard. Shahar's Jerusalem has much in common with Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria. For Shahar, Jerusalem is both a celestial and earthly city which he peopled with somewhat marginal people: brilliant eccentrics, madmen, prostitutes, artists and mystics, as if to make what indeed was one of his central points - that the mystical and the depressingly normal are always two sides of the same coin.

His attempt to recreate this lost past has led French critics particularly to dub him the Israeli Proust. Far better loved and even better known in France, than in his native Israel, Shahar has spent the last years between Paris and Jerusalem. In France he was awarded the Prix Medicis Etranger and made Commander in the Ordre des arts et des lettres. The relative rejection of Shahar in Israel no doubt has its roots in the ideology of the literary establishment. But Shahar played a role himself, he was a prickly man who rejoiced in his position as an outsider. In recent years while he was being published in translation by Gallimard - the most prestigious of French publishers - he had a series of disputes with Israeli publishers and eventually set up his own publishing house to bring out what was probably his masterpiece, the seven-volumed historical saga Palace of Broken Vessels. Recently reprinted in a special edition by the Israeli Ministry of Culture, the novel has as a central character called Gabriel Luria whose distant ancestor Isaac ben Shlomo was a leading 16th-century Kabbalist in Safed. This haunting, epic series of novels consciously sets out to create a new mythology of Jewish existence. Shahar's translated works include News from Jerusalem (1979); Summer in the Road of the Prophets (1973), A Voyage to Ur of the Chaldees (1971) and The Day of the Countess (1976), all part of The Palace of Shattered Vessels; His Majesty's Agent (1979); Ricky's Secret Day of the Ghosts (1988), The Moon of Honey and Gold (1959, translated 1991); and The Palace Stairs: a Tammuz night's dream (1991).

Despite his uncomfortable relationship with Israel's writing establishment David Shahar became chairman of the Hebrew Writers Association and won some of Israel's most sought after literary prizes including the Bialik Prize, the Agnon Prize and the Prime Minister's Prize.

David Shahar, writer: born Jerusalem 17 June 1926; married 1956 Shulamith Weinstock (one son, one daughter); died Paris 2 April 1997.